Feature of the Week

April 16, 2012 12:28 am

A liberal sprinkling of the arts

young people looking at art generic

In the picture: companies are seeking students with a more well-rounded business education

When Garrett Koehn began his search for an executive MBA programme, a degree for working executives, he could not find what he was looking for. And that, according to Mr Koehn, president of the north-western US division at Crump Group, the insurance company, was an “acknowledgment that the world is changing”.

“I grew up during the cold war where the US was the centre of the universe and that isn’t true any more,” Mr Koehn says. His grasp of world economics needed an update and he wanted a refresher on culture and history.

Last year, he enrolled in a new EMBA programme offered by Spain’s IE business school and Brown University in Rhode Island, which combines humanities and social sciences with traditional management education. Brown is one of only two Ivy League universities in the US – Princeton is the other – that does not have a business school.

“The liberal arts [bent] adds a political, social and cultural context to what’s happening in finance,” he says.

Mr Koehn is not alone in seeking a better-rounded business education and schools are taking the hint. Battered by criticism for the role they played in the financial crisis – churning out graduates too focused on making money and unable to think across multiple disciplines – some business schools are embracing curriculums often associated with liberal arts.

The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, for instance, has revamped its curriculum in an effort to hone students’ ability to innovate, collaborate and use “abductive” reasoning skills, which often involve creative leaps of imagination. In 2007 Stanford Graduate School of Business made extensive curriculum changes that gave more weight to multidisciplinary perspectives and awareness of cultural contexts.

In some respects, the increased emphasis on liberal arts is an acknowledgment that the traditional MBA curriculum has fallen short. Many of the biggest employers of newly minted MBAs have changed the way in which they seek corporate talent. The globalisation of white-collar labour means they can hire business graduates in India for financial analysis jobs at far lower salaries.

This reality coincides with employers’ growing appreciation for disciplines beyond finance and accounting. One telling statistic is that in 1993, 61 per cent of McKinsey’s new hires had MBAs; in 2006 only 43 per cent did.

“Companies realised they were starting to lose their edge in creativity and problem-solving so they started to hire architects, engineers and lawyers,” says Stuart Kaplan, global chief operating officer at Korn/Ferry, the executive search firm. “They are finding less relevance for the traditional MBA.”

In an era of interconnected financial markets and fast-paced technological innovation, the optimal management skill set has changed, he says.

“We are shifting away from command-and-control type managers to leaders who understand that environments are more fluid. Companies are looking for leaders who ... approach problems from many different perspectives and combine those approaches to find new solutions.”

James Spohrer, director of IBM’s university programmes, says that hires with a background in liberal arts “tend to have excellent written and spoken communication skills ... and are more likely to be creative thinkers”.

The IE/Brown programme involves classes at Brown and at IE, supplemented with online coursework. Traditional courses comprise two-thirds of the curriculum, but there is also an arts class that explores the history of hip-hop music, a theatre class to help students hone their public speaking ability and a philosophy class on the meaning of work and identity.

. . .

David Bach, dean of programmes at IE Business School and academic director of the joint EMBA, dismisses the notion that the liberal arts classes are perhaps a little too easy. “It gives students a chance to engage in the creative process. Managers say: ‘I never thought of myself as being creative.’ The fact that it’s fun doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a purpose.”

However, some in the MBA community – even those who see the value of liberal arts – concede that adding a dose of liberal arts to a traditional curriculum is not the answer.

Roger Martin, dean at Rotman, says that liberal arts programmes can be a “bit self-satisfied”.

“They default on the hardest thing,” he says. “Schools do not teach people how to think across these subjects and how to structure and solve cognitive problems.”

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